We know a lot about Isfahan in the 17th century. Poets and court chroniclers praised its beauty and recorded its expansion under the great monarch, Shah Abbas (1588-1629). European travelers like John Chardin and Pietro della Valle left us picturesque descriptions of its monuments and people. Artists painstakingly recorded the city-scape. Scholars have long studied its architecture and urbanism. In recent years, Kathryn Babayan has delved into the letters and diaries of its citizens. Now Farshid Emami tries to pull all these threads together and answer the question: what was it like to live in Shah Abbas’s Isfahan?

For almost seven centuries, two powers dominated the region we now call the Middle East: Rome and Persia. From the west: The Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, later the Byzantine Empire. From the East: The Parthian Empire, later replaced by the Sassanian Empire. The two ancient superpowers spent centuries fighting for influence, paying each other off, encouraging proxy fights in their neighbors, and seizing opportunities while the other was distracted with internal strife. The relationship culminates in an almost-three-decade long war that so exhausts the two powers that they both end up getting overrun by the Arabs years later.

The history of Iran’s rich musical culture presents a paradox. On the one hand, there is a distinctive Persian style of music, different from its Arab, Turkish, Central and South Asian neighbors. It has its own modes, its own vocal styles, its favorite instruments, its own performance genres. On the other hand, for many centuries the frontiers of Iran were fluid; a series of wars and revolutions transported its cultural centers from east to west and back again. At times the royal court existed only in camps, and indeed the musicians, dancers and singers lived in tents as well. Foreign invasions and conquest of adjacent countries brought a steady supply of musicians from exogenous traditions: Indians, Georgians, Armenians. And from time to time, Islamic rigorism banned music altogether. So what is Iranian music and how did it survive over the centuries?

Narrative history at its best, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Rome and Persia is informative, readable, carefully sourced, and cautious in its judgments about events that occurred between 90 BCE and the 600s CE in the Mediterranean world, north Africa, and western Asia. It is also instructive about imperial rivalries, geopolitical competition, and human nature across the ages—including our present one. 

In 1868, as now, the Middle East seemed to be a place where fortunes could be made from the region’s mineral resources and from its central location between Europe and India. The Persian empire was slowly recovering from decades of invasion, civil war, banditry, and plagues. A new monarch, Naseroddin Shah, made a good impression in the capitals of Europe, which he visited frequently beginning in 1873. Yet “the well-protected realm” remained mysterious. A lack of information about its people and geography challenged international investors, who still relied on John Chardin’s accounts of 150 years earlier. They were greedy for up-to-date insights into the country. Albert Houtum Schindler was their providential man.

The Book of Esther, one of the historical books in the Torah and the Old Testament, is known as a story of community, discrimination, and human ingenuity. It’s core to the Jewish holiday of Purim, with singing, feasting, and other merriment. And it’s unique as one of the few books in the Bible that doesn’t mention God. At all.

It’s amazing that art historians like Robert Hillenbrand got to study the “Great Mongol Shahnama” at all. 500 pages of Firahdosi’s epic poem, with 300 illustrations, in a manuscript whose leaves are as wide as an ordinary person’s arms. Never completed, never bound, smuggled out of Iran by corrupt dignitaries, and separated and padded out by an unsavory Belgian art dealer.